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No. 2: The Battle of Gog and Magog

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 2
February, 1989
Copyright 1989, Biblical Horizons

The battle of Gog and Magog is found in Ezekiel 38-39. My purpose in this brief essay is to propound an explanation for this passage that I have not encountered in any of my commentaries, but that makes more sense to me than any other. I offer it here in the hope that others can enter into conversation over the matter. Thus, this essay is designed as a "first word" and not the "last word" on the subject.

As I wrote in Through New Eyes (pp. 245f.), Ezekiel presents the destruction of Jerusalem as simultaneously a judgment on the whole world (Ezekiel 24-33). After this, he prophesies that the people will return to the land. Sometime after this there would be a time of trouble, and the land would be invaded by an army made up of many peoples under the leadership of Prince Gog. In Through New Eyes I followed many older commentators in referring this to the invasion of the land by Antiochus Epiphanes.

After this huge battle, a new Temple is built out of the spoils. This follows the pattern of victory followed by housebuilding that we see everywhere in the Bible. The Tabernacle was built of the spoils of Egypt, and the Temple of the spoils of the Philistines. Ezekiel’s Temple is described in a vision of sacred geometry, but it was intended to apply to the Restoration era. The actual building erected by Joshua and Zerubbabel (Haggai 1-2; Zechariah 1-6) and glorified by Ezra was the literal fulfillment of the visions of Ezekiel 40-48. The changes in sacrificial administration set out in these visions were implemented in the Restoration Temple. I noted in Through New Eyes that this was the view of Adam Clarke, Matthew Henry, Matthew Poole, and E. W. Hengstenberg.

I wasn’t quite happy with this, since it puts the battle of Gog and Magog out of sequence. Antiochus Epiphanes invaded the land years after Ezra finished glorifying the Temple. Is there another event that better fits as the fulfillment of Ezekiel 38-30? I believe there is. I suggest that the book of Esther describes the fulfillment of the battle of Gog and Magog.

Let me make a detour into Zechariah. Zechariah sees the Kingdom in the form of a grove of myrtle trees (Zech. 1:8). It is significant that Esther’s original Hebrew name, Hadassah, is the word for "myrtle" (Esth. 2:7). Moreover, Zechariah prophesies the events of Esther in Zechariah 2:8-9. He states that after the Glory of God had moved back into the Temple, the nations would seek to plunder Israel. God would wave His hand over them, however, so that they would be plundered by their slaves, those they were oppressing: Israel. This event would be a confirming seal to them that God had indeed reestablished the Covenant with them.

Of course, it is in Esther that we see a conspiracy to plunder the Jews, which backfires with the result that the Jews plundered their enemies. This event is then ceremonially sealed with the institution of the annual Feast of Purim. The book of Esther is frequently overlooked in the Old Testament, and its meaning has been widely debated. If my suggestion is correct, however, we now have a good idea of its purpose and place in the canon.

With this in mind, we can look back at Ezekiel. Ezekiel 34 states that God will act as Good Shepherd to Israel, and will bring them back into the land. He continues this theme in Ezekiel 36, saying that God will make a new covenant with Israel. The inauguration of this new covenant, which we can call the Restoration Covenant, is described in Zechariah 3, where God removes the filth from Joshua the High Priest and restores the Temple and priesthood. See the discussion of this in Through New Eyes, pp. 252-3. Of course, Ezekiel’s language in Ezekiel 36:25-27 is picked up in the New Testament and applied to the New Covenant, but we need to understand that the first fulfillment of his words was in the Restoration Covenant, which was of course a type of the New Covenant.

Ezekiel continues in Ezekiel 37 with the vision of the valley of dry bones. The Spirit of God would be given in greater measure than ever before (though of course not as great as at Pentecost in Acts 2), and the result would be a restoration of the people. No longer would there be a cultural division between Judah and Ephraim, but all would be together as a new people. (Their new name would be "Jew.")

At this point, Ezekiel describes the attack of Gog, Prince of Magog, and his confederates. Ezekiel states that people from all the world will attack God’s people, who are pictured dwelling at peace in the land. God’s people will completely defeat them, however, and the spoils will be immense. The result is that all nations will see the victory, and "the house of Israel will know that I am the Lord their God from that day onward" (Ezk. 39:21-23). This is the same idea as we found in Zechariah 2:9, "They you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent Me," which I argued above most likely refers to the events of Esther.

Chronologically this all fits very nicely. The events of Esther took place during the reign of Xerxes, after the initial rebuilding of the Temple under Joshua and Zerubbabel and shortly before the restoration of the Temple by Ezra and the rebuilding of the walls by Nehemiah.

I have spoken of the restoration of the Temple by Ezra. The Bible does not say that Ezra oversaw any work on the physical Temple, though he did bring many gifts to enhance and glorify it. It is rather the spiritual community of Israel that Ezra restored, and this is the restoration of the true Temple, the people-Temple, which the physical Temple symbolized.

Just as Ezra restored the spiritual Temple and glorified the physical one, so Nehemiah established a social polity among the people and rebuilt the physical walls of Jerusalem. Since Ezekiel 40-48 is concerned with the fullness of the Temple and also with the reconfiguration of the social polity of the land, it is possible to maintain that the central fulfillment of Ezekiel 40-48 is found in the labors of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Thus, the interpretive hypothesis I am suggesting (until someone shoots it down) is this: Ezekiel 34-37 describes the first return of the exiles under Zerubbabel, and implies the initial rebuilding of the physical Temple. Ezekiel 38-39 describes the attack of Gog (Haman) and his confederates against the Jews. Finally, Ezekiel 40-48 describes in figurative language the situation as a result of the work of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Looking at a few details, we see that the victory of the Jews over their enemies in Esther resulted in the deaths of 75,310 people (Esth. 9:10, 15, 16). This number of deaths is commensurate with the extent of the slaughter pictured in Ezekiel 38-39. The Jews were told that they might plunder those they slew (Esth. 8:11), but they did not take any of the plunder for their personal use (Esth. 9:10, 15, 16), which surely implies that it was regarded as holy and was sent to adorn the Temple. Was this the gold and silver "found in the whole province of Babylon" that Ezra brought to Jerusalem a few years later (Ezr. 7:16)?

Another interesting correspondence lies in the fact that the book of Esther repeatedly calls attention to the "127 provinces" of the Persian Empire, and in connection with the attack on the Jews, speaks of the "provinces which were from India to Cush" (Esth. 8:9). This goes well with the way Ezekiel 38 starts out, for there a number of nations are mentioned from all over the world, all of which were within the boundaries of the Persian Empire (Ezk. 38:1-6). In other words, the explicit idea that the Jews were attacked by people from all the provinces of Persia is in both passages.

Another possible cue is found in the prominent use of the Hebrew word for "multitude" in Ezekiel 39:11, 15, and 16. That word is hamon, which is spelled in Hebrew almost exactly like the name Haman. It was Haman, of course, who engineered the attack on the Jews in Esther. In Hebrew, both words have the same "triliteral root" (hmn). Only the vowels are different. (Though in hamon, the vowel "o" is indicated by the letter vav.) According to Ezekiel 39:11 and 15, the place where the army of Gog is buried will be known as the Valley of Hamon-Gog, and according to verse 16, the nearby city will become known as Hamonah. It seems to me that if I were a Jew living during the intertestamental era, I would be struck by the correspondence between Haman and Hamon-Gog, and it would cause me to consider whether or not they are related.

Yet another corroboration, to my mind, lies in the fact that Haman was an Amalekite. He was an "Agagite," a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag who was captured by Saul and hacked to pieces by Samuel (1 Sam. 15; Esth. 3:1). What Esther records is the last great attack upon Israel by Amalek, and the final destruction of Amalek. Now, Numbers 24:20 states that "Amalek was the first of the nations, but his end shall be destruction." The term "nation" is more closely associated with the Japhethites than with the Hamites or the Shemites. We don’t know which "nation" Amalek was, since it is not listed in Genesis 10, but it would seem to have been a Japhethite one.

At any rate, what is striking about Ezekiel 38 is that the nations listed as conspiring against Israel are Japhethite and Hamite nations seldom if ever heard from outside the primordial list of Genesis 10. Magog, Meshech, Tubal, Beth-togarmah, Tarshish, and Gomer are all Japhethite nations from Genesis 10:2-4. Cush, Put, Sheba, and Dedan are Hamite peoples from Genesis 10:6-7. Thus, the notion is of a conspiracy of primordial peoples against the true remnant of the Shemites. This certainly squares well with the fact that Haman was the preeminent representative of Amalek, the first of the nations.

The main argument against my hypothesis would be that Ezekiel 38-39 picture an invasion of the land of Israel, whereas the events of Esther happened throughout the Persian Empire. At present, this argument does not have much force with me because of the fact that this entire section of Ezekiel is so highly symbolic in tone anyway. Chapter 37 gives us the vision of the valley of dry bones, after all, and chapters 40-48 are a thoroughly geometrical vision of the Restoration Temple. Thus, I can see no difficulty in assuming that Ezekiel is picturing the final world-wide attack of Amalek and his cohorts under the imagery of an attack on the land, imagery derived from the book of Judges (cp. Jud. 18:7, 10, 27 with Ezk. 38:8, 11, 14).

A final corroboration of this interpretive hypothesis comes from what we might call the "Amalek Pattern" in the Bible. Note in Genesis 12-15 that Abram moves into the land after escaping Pharaoh (ch. 12), settles down and experiences peace and prosperity (ch. 13), and then faces an invasion of a worldwide alliance of nations (ch. 14). This alliance captures Lot, but Abram rescues him, after which a Gentile priest blesses Abram (ch. 14). Finally, after this, God appears to Abram in a vision and makes covenant with him (ch. 15), guaranteeing him a "house."

Now look at Moses: After escaping Pharaoh (Ex. 1-14), the people are given food and water in the wilderness (Ex. 16). Then Amalek attacks and kills many Lot-like stragglers (Ex. 17; Dt. 25:17-19). Moses defeats Amalek, after which a Gentile priest (Jethro) blesses the people, and then God appears in the Cloud and makes covenant with them (Ex. 18-24), including the building of a "house" (the Tabernacle).

The same themes show up in the history of David: After escaping Pharaoh Saul (1 Sam. 18-26), David finds a place of rest in the "wilderness" at Ziklag (ch. 27). Then Amalek attacks and steals David’s wives (ch. 30), but David defeats them. Following this, a Gentile priest-king (Hiram of Tyre, whose as a Gentile king was also a priest) blesses David (2 Sam. 5:11-12), and then God appears to David in a vision, promising him a "house" (2 Sam. 7).

In this pattern, the attack of Gentile world powers (Gen. 14) is associated with the attack of Amalek (Ex. 17; 1 Sam. 27). As can plainly be seen, the same pattern recurs in the Restoration. After departing from Babylon, the people settle in the land and experience a degree of peace. Then comes the attack of Amalek and Gog & Magog. After this, Gentile priest-kings sponsor the return of Ezra and Nehemiah to restore the land and the "house."

While it would be fascinating to follow up this theme in the Gospels, Acts, and possibly Revelation, enough has been said to indicate that it is a recurring pattern, and one that lends some support to the hypothesis that the attack of Gog and Magog is fulfilled in the book of Esther.